Marriage Education and Government Policy:
Helping Couples Who Choose Marriage Achieve Success
Scott M. Stanley
Howard J. Markman
University of Denver
Natalie H. Jenkins
March 4, 2002
Support for the preparation of this document, as well as for a
significant amount of the research mentioned here, was provided in
part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health:
Division of Services and Intervention Research, Adult and Geriatric
Treatment and Prevention Branch, Grant 5-RO1-MH35525-12, "The
Long-term Effects of Premarital Intervention" (awarded to the first
The Goal: The vast majority of ALL Americans desire happy,
lasting marriages, whether rich or poor, male or female, and no
matter what sub-culture they live within. There is ample evidence
that individuals, as well as the society at large, benefit when
those citizens who choose marriage for themselves are able to
maintain healthy marriages. It is therefore a worthy goal, in both
public and private sectors, to make this dream more attainable for
The Strategy: One key element of a comprehensive
government strategy to strengthen families is marriage and
relationship education. Over the past 30 years, marital researchers
have discovered that marital success is not a matter of luck nor is
marital failure a matter of mystery. Using a growing knowledge
base, the best practices in marriage education are scientifically
based, regularly refined based on ongoing scientific findings and
field experience, and have demonstrated beneficial effects in
accordance with scientific standards for dissemination.
Scientifically Tested: Over the past three decades,
scientifically based relationship education programs have
demonstrated considerable promise. The Prevention and Relationship
Enhancement Program (PREP) is one such program that has been
studied intensively, including long-term outcome studies by six
different research teams in four different countries, and over 20
years of ongoing research funded by the National Institute of
Mental Health. Five of 7 key studies on PREP thus far show very
promising findings. Other programs such as Relationship Enhancement
and Couples Communication have strong scientific foundations, as
well, with strong histories of positive findings in outcome
research. While the interpretation of outcome studies is very
complex, and researchers can differ in interpretation of the data
that exist, there is promising evidence, including the
- Couples can learn to reduce patterns of negative interaction
that are known risk factors for marital failure, adult depression,
poor child outcomes, and work related problems. For example,
couples who have deficits in how they handle conflict are more
likely to fail and also more likely to have children with
behavioral problems. Studies have shown that couples can be taught
critical skills that are useful for handling common relationship
conflicts (e.g., money, children, chores, and sex). The evidence
that couples can learn to communicate less negatively and more
positively is quite robust.
- In several significant studies, there is evidence that couples
can lower rates of premarital break-up and post marital divorce.
For example, in an earlier study at the University of Denver, PREP
couples had a 12% break up rate compared to control couples who had
a 36% break up rate at the 5 year follow-up. In a recent study in
Germany, 3% of the PREP couples had divorced at a 5-year follow-up
compared to 16% of couples who received traditional premarital
education. At present, in the most recent study, couples
receiving PREP delivered by clergy and lay leaders have a 1.5%
break up/divorce rate compared to 10.3% for couples taking
alternate programs. Not all studies show these kinds of effects,
though, when there are significant differences in break up rates (3
of the main PREP studies at present), they are in the direction of
the group receiving the more empirically based strategies (in these
studies, PREP) being less prone to breaking up. Unfortunately, too
few studies in this field have long enough follow-ups (beyond
months or a year) to be able to examine such issues in more
- Couples can learn ways to maintain higher levels of
relationship satisfaction and thereby provide increased support to
each other as they work as a team both inside and outside the home
on their jobs, job training, parenting, and so on.
- In some studies, higher risk couples have shown the strongest
- People with various backgrounds can be trained to be effective
providers. Therefore, government workers can reach couples in need
with high cost efficiency. People such as social workers, clergy,
lay leaders, therapists, public health nurses, have been
successfully trained to deliver marriage education services. Using
existing care-giving systems enables marriage education to be
delivered by service providers who are known to the recipients and
who understand the cultural and community context of their
It is important to note that the beneficial effects of the more
empirically based approaches appear to last up to 5 years after the
training for many couples. Beyond that, the effects probably
weaken over time, and therefore it is important for couples who
benefit from such material to periodically review it or to
participate in booster classes.
Other Benefits: In addition to the specific effects of
relationship education for couples, we and other experts in the
field argue that marriage education can benefit those interested in
marriage through at least five other pathways:
(1) Marriage education provides scientifically based information
about the benefits of strong and healthy marriages for both adults
and children. Such benefits include being better providers, living
longer, being less reliant on government services including
welfare, health care, mental heath care, and earning and saving
(2) Marriage education provides information about what to expect
in marriage�a roadmap of expected challenges such as the birth of
the first child, parenting of adolescents, empty nest, common
gender differences, etc. For example, best practices marriage
education programs teach couples how to handle differences
respectfully�and to have confidence that they can do so. As
importantly, it can teach couples that when differences occur, it
does not mean they�ve necessarily made the wrong choice in partners
(as many young individuals believe), but that even people who love
one another will disagree on key issues and need to have strategies
for handling differences constructively.
(3) Marriage education is a cost effective way to make couples
more aware of other public and private sector resources, including
marital counseling for couples who need it.
(4) Marriage education can help couples better understand
principles about commitment, acceptance, forgiveness, and sacrifice
that are known to be associated with healthy relationships. For
example, individuals can learn about how a stable sense of a future
together (long-term view; where appropriate) is a fundamental
aspect of healthy and successful marriages, and that one way they
can act on that knowledge is to learn not to threaten the sense of
a future at moments of conflict merely because of the frustration
of the moment.
(5) Some individuals can learn about risk factors and conclude
that a marriage (or partner) they are considering is not a good
choice, or not a good choice at this time. In fact, David Olson has
data on premarital counseling that suggests that 10-15% of couples
who take PREPARE within 6 months of their intended wedding date
decide not to marry. Further, this figure representing constructive
break ups goes even higher when couples take PREPARE 6-12 months
prior to marriage, along with feedback sessions (David Olson,
personal comm. 2/10/00).
Ongoing Refinement of Methods: Social scientists always
hope to gain more knowledge about risk and protective factors for
marital outcomes. Indeed, in another decade, we will know even more
about key dynamics contributing to marital distress, as well as
more about strategies for helping couples succeed. We will also be
learning more about which couples respond best to which kinds of
strategies. Yet, the societal need to strengthen marriages is so
great that we should act now on what we now know. Later, when we
know more, we can and will refine our efforts based on new
knowledge gained, including knowledge gained as a result of
government marriage initiatives in the U. S.
Q: Does marriage and relationship education simply apply
pressure to people to marry?
A: No. Marriage education can empower those who
choose marriage for themselves to improve their odds. Also, best
practice programs can lead some couples to a clearer awareness of
their risks such that they conclude they are not ready or not
suitable for marriage.
Q: Don�t these people just need intensive therapy?
A: Some used to think that ineffective parents were simply
bad parents, or parents in need of intense therapy. However,
decades of experience and research on parent education demonstrates
that people can learn how to be more effective parents. Marital
education is no different. It can help people learn ways to be more
effective in their pursuit of stable and thriving marriages.
Q: Don�t jobs matter more than marriage for success in
life? Shouldn�t government be focused only on helping people become
A: Policy debates often sound as if government can only do
one thing or another at a time. There is extensive evidence that
family break down contributes to economic problems and also that
economic problems contribute to family stress. Government has a
vested interest in helping people access both stable employment and
stable family environments. Strategies should not be limited to one
domain when failure in either is directly linked to dependence upon
the government. Not only can government reduce unintended barriers
to marriage, government can help citizens achieve better access to
the benefits of marital success by helping couples who choose
marriage to be more successful at it.
Q: Do relationship education programs damage couples who
have more serious problems, including domestic violence and mental
A: No. Not only is there no evidence that best practices
marriage education harms couples, but there is some evidence to the
contrary. For example, PREP shows promising results with
higher-risk couples. Further, research and clinical experience
(e.g., throughout the U.S. Military) suggest that educational
approaches are the best way to reach all kinds of couples, where
the needs of many couples can be met efficiently, and where those
who need more intensive services can learn more about how to access
them. Specifically, with some forms of domestic violence, no
approach has shown effectiveness�educational or therapeutic. In all
cases, the pre-eminent concern is for safety�at times in the form
of the female distancing from the male. Regardless, even when it
comes to concerns about domestic violence, part of what
relationship education can do is teach people about what sorts of
behavior are entirely unacceptable, and what options there may be
for further help.
Q: Don�t relationship education efforts take away from the
options women have in fulfilling requirements under TANF?
A: Quite the opposite. Current proposals actually give
these women another option�not remove any�among a range of choices
that can be combined to satisfy the work activity requirements that
have existed for the past 5 years under the 1996 welfare reform
Scott M. Stanley is co-director of the Center for Marital and
Family Studies at the University of Denver. He has published
widelyboth research reports as well as writings for couples, with
a focus on commitment theory and research. Along with Dr. Howard
Markman and colleagues, Dr. Stanley has been involved in the
research, development, and refinement of the Prevention and
Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) for over 20 years. Drs.
Stanley and Markman are currently engaged in a long-term study of
the effectiveness of PREP disseminated in the community, funded by
the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Stanley has
co-authored the books Fighting for Your Marriage (with Howard
Markman and Susan Blumberg), A Lasting Promise, Becoming Parents,
Empty Nesting, and is author of The Heart of Commitment.
Howard J. Markman, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology, and
director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the
University of Denver in Colorado. He is widely published in
academic journals and internationally known for his work on the
prediction and prevention of divorce and marital distress. He
has often appeared in broadcast and print media, including segments
about PREP on 20/20, Oprah, and 48 Hours. Along with his
colleagues, he has co-authored the books We Can Work It Out: Making
Sense of Marital Conflict, Fighting for Your Marriage (with Scott
Stanley and Susan Blumberg), Becoming Parents, Empty Nesting, and
Fighting for Your Jewish Marriage.
Natalie H. Jenkins is vice president and marketing director of
PREP, Inc. Natalie began her business career with a degree from
Colorado State University, and has extensive experience in the
dissemination of program materials to providers and users of
educational services. For the last decade, she has spearheaded
PREP's efforts to bring its research-based materials out of the
research lab and into the hands of couples. She is co-author of the
upcoming book, You Paid How Much for That: How to Win At Money
Without Losing at Love. She also is co-developer of The PREP
One-Day Leader's Manual, Christian PREP One-Day Leader's Manual,
and The PREP Coaching Video. She is also coauthor of the Fighting
for Your Marriage Workbooks. Natalie is centrally involved in
PREP�s efforts to translate academic research findings into usable
strategies for couples.
The Following Reference List is Not Exhaustive. However,
these references would give one good access to the existing
literature on research on relationship and marriage education
programs for couples. There is a far broader literature at
this point on the risk factors for marital distress and failure.
References leading to that literature can be found on our website
by going to the marriage facts and research link
Giblin, P., Sprenkle, D.H., & Sheehan, R.
(1985). Enrichment outcome research: A meta-analysis of
premarital, marital, and family interventions. Journal of
Marital and Family Therapy, 11(3), 257-271.
Guerney, B. G., Jr. & Maxson, P. (1990). Marital and
family enrichment research: A decade review and look ahead. Journal
of Marriage and the Family, 52, 1127-1134.
Hahlweg, K., Markman, H.J., Thurmaier, F., Engl, J. &
Eckert, V. (1998).
Prevention of marital distress: Results of a German prospective
longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology, 12, 543-556.
Markman, H., Floyd, F., Stanley, S. & Storaasli, R.
(1988). The Prevention of Marital Distress: A Longitudinal
Investigation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,
Markman, H.J., & Hahlweg, K. (1993). The prediction and
prevention of marital distress: An international perspective.
Clinical Psychology Review, 13, 29-43.
Markman, H.J., Renick, M.J., Floyd, F., Stanley, S., &
Clements, M. (1993). Preventing marital distress through
communication and conflict management training: A four and five
year follow-up. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62,
Miller, S., Wackman, D.B., & Nunnally, E.W. (1976). A
communication training program for couples. Social Casework, 57
Ridley, C. A. & Sladeczek, I. E. Premarital Relationship
Enhancement: Its Effects on Needs to Relate to Others. Family
Relations, 1992, 41, 148-153.
Silliman, B., Schumm, W.R., & Jurich, A.P. (1992). Young
adults' preferences for premarital preparation program designs.
Contemporary Family Therapy, 14, 89-100.
Silliman, B., Stanley, S.M., Coffin, W., Markman, H.J., &
Jordan, P.L. (2001). Preventive Interventions for
Couples. In H. Liddle, D. Santisteban, R. Levant, and J. Bray
(Eds.), Family Psychology Intervention Science. Washington,
D.C.: APA Publications.
Stanley, S.M. (2001). Making the Case for Premarital
Training. Family Relations, 50, 272280.
Stanley, S.M., Blumberg, S.L., & Markman, H.J. (1999).
Helping Couples Fight for Their Marriages: The PREP Approach.
In R. Berger & M. Hannah, (Eds.), Handbook of preventive
approaches in couple therapy (pp. 279-303). New York:
Stanley, S.M., Markman, H.J., Prado, L.M., Olmos-Gallo, P.A.,
Tonelli, L., St. Peters, M., Leber, B.D., Bobulinski, M.,
Cordova, A., & Whitton, S.
(2001). Community Based Premarital Prevention: Clergy
and Lay Leaders on the Front Lines . Family Relations,50,
Sullivan, K.T. & Goldschmidt, D. (2000). Implementation of
empirically validated interventions in managed-care settings: The
prevention and relationship enhancement program. Professional
Psychology: Research and Practice, 31, 216-220.
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